The Myth of the Doped Peloton

Everyone doped?  Seems like a bit of a broad brush to me. 
Reading admission statements from dopers, it seems like almost the entire peloton was jacked on something or other.  Listening to clean riders, you get the same idea.  On the other hand, the UCI and cheerleaders like Phil Liggett give you the idea that doping is rare.
Everyone has his bias.  It’s in the interest of dopers to overestimate the depth of doping; the alleged prevalence is justification for doping.  It’s in the interest of clean riders to overestimate the depth of doping, too; it explains why they didn’t have more success.  The best of all possible worlds is a doper claiming to be clean while decrying widespread doping. 
Every new regime has an interest, in the absence of a positive test, to have claimed the past was bad, but they’ve turned the page, and now, under the new regime, dopers are few and have less of an edge.
The UCI, team directors, race promoters and authority flacks, they have a real interest in minimizing the number so that their sport escapes scrutiny.
The blog Science in Sport has an interesting graph or twolooking at how doping changed, and was possibily reduced in pro cycling as the testing got better.  On the flip side, Joe Papp makes evading doping controls seem so easy; it’s hard to imagine anyone getting caught.
The “targets” of random tests also can skew what we think we know about dopers.  The testers, if they’re sympathetic to a rider, or to a race, or to the UCI, might try to target riders they think are clean, to get the percentage of positive tests down.  While an independent organization might go out of their way to catch the most obvious cheats.  An organization low on resources might only follow up on “slam dunks” and riders judged to be without resources to contest the claims. 
Several years ago, Fabian Cancellara suggested in an interview that WADA knew who the dopers were.  I’m still looking for the quote.  Seemed like an odd comment.  Around the same time, a contact told me that the people at Slipstream Sports had approached WADA about Thomas Dekker, the then-Rabobank wunderkind.  From what they heard, they passed on Dekker: he went on to Lotto, and was busted shortly thereafter.  I heard a similar story about Alessandro Ballan, in that the Cervélo Test Team was interested in him, but they couldn’t get his biological passport data: as a result, they decided not to sign.  Ballan hasn’t been caught, but has been taken out of racing a few times in his tenure at BMC due to doping suspicions. 
I’m starting to believe that at the elite level, where the biological passport is a real thing and there is longitudinal testing, the ADA’s might have pretty reasonable suspicions about certain athletes.  They can probably identify biological test numbers that are on the edge of suspicious, but not enough to warrant an investigation, let alone a suspension. Same goes for the French Cycling Federation (FFC), which has been testing riders since the start of 1999. 
The FFC testing protocol is supposed to be quarterly blood tests for FFC professionals.  I haven’t been able to find out whether or not it applies to all pro cyclists living in France, or just French cyclists in France.  Telling that the two most successful French road racers of the late 1990’s, Laurent Jalabert and Richard Virenque, decamped to Switzerland once the testing was announced.  On the other hand, Lance Armstrong lived in Nice in 1999. 
Starting in 1999, and until the start of the biological passport system at the start of 2008, French cyclists saw little success at the Tour de France, or anywhere else in the top-tier races.  During the Armstrong reign, 1999-2005, they comprised as much as 24% of the starters at the Tour, as little as 16%.  Jonathan Vaughters claims that when he was hired by Roger Legeay to ride for Credit Agricole, Legeay wanted to pay him like a Tour winner if he could manage a top ten finish and do it clean.   Not that Vaughters appears to have been completely clean during his days on Credit Agricole.  And while the Cofidis team was littered with dopers until several were caught with David Millar in 2004, Credit Agricole and Francaise des Jeux seem to have run pretty clean programs—CA all the way through its existence (including its previous incarnations of Gan and Z) and FdJ most of the way, but especially after longitudinal testing began in France.  France’s AG2R seems to have been a doper’s haven pre-1999, when it was Casino, but seemed to clean up its act shortly thereafter. 
What would be fairly revealing is seeing actual hematocrit numbers from the point that the 50% hematocrit limit was set in 1997 to the start of 2003, when the urine EPO test was introduced.  We now know for sure that Lance was doping back then, but it would have been so easy to take a look at his hematocrit numbers from that era and determine his guilt.  The UCI presumably had this data from him, and hundreds of other elite cyclists.  It would be fascinating to know what percentage of racers had a hematocrit between 46 and 49.8 in the middle of a three-week stage race.  And this is knowing that the rider probably lowered the number recorded in the minutes leading up to the test.
So, was everyone doping?  Doesn’t look like it. Studying the results of the 1999 Tour, six in the top twenty were never caught doping at any point in their career, according to Dopeology.  They are: Daniele Nardello of Mapei in seventh place, Andrea Peron of ONCE in tenth, Kurt Van de Wouwer of Lotto in eleventh, Stephane Heulot of Francaise des Jeux in fourteenth, Benoit Salmon of Casino in sixteenth, Carlos Contreras of Kelme in nineteenth.  I’m not suggesting that just because they weren’t caught during their professional careers, they raced clean at the 1999 Tour, but its possible.
Likewise, reading through the bounty of information that has come to light in recent months, there was a kind of strategy teams that wanted to stay clean could employ.  In 1994, the Motorola cycling team is said to arrived on a strategy of targeting second-tier races, like semi-classics and secondary week-long stage races as the focus of their energies, and then just hope for the best in the biggest races; tell everyone on the team to race as an opportunist and go for the long breaks, the transitional stages, and so on..  In 1996, the US Postal Service team, possibly inadvertently, succeeded in smaller races.  For both squads, the page was turned the following year.  Perhaps other teams have employed this kind of thinking. 
Many a doper has been caught and explains, with just the right amount of remorse that they were “just trying to keep up.”  Perhaps.  But at the same time, it’s often a rider who didn’t merely just keep up, but won, who is making the statement.  They were also counting on others not cheating.  Just as they’re counting on us today to accept their cheating as part of the course. 
And when a “champion” like Armstrong cheats, it’s not because he merely wanted to keep up, or win a bit, but because he believed he could cheat better and not get caught.  When a “champion” or his apologists tell you “everyone was doing it,” their word is not to be trusted.  

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Doped Peloton”

  1. Just received this comment from a friend:

    Noticed the part on testing in the FFC. Found this document (link above) which specifies which riders are subject to their regulations. Seems to indicate that all french pros with a french license, the top 300 cat 1 road riders in their national rankings, all cat 1 mountain, bmx, track and cross riders, pros that went back to cat 1, foreign riders who belong to a french team, riders listed on their so-call high level lists (which are french restricted). Seems that foreigners on non-french teams are not included. However, french riders on non-french teams would be included because they need a french license to compete. This might explain the globally "poor" performance of the french riders during the period you discuss. I suspect that the migration of Jalabert and Virenque to Switzerland was more of a fiscal move that dope dodging. France has a tax rate on these guys which is outrageous. This was about the same time when their salaries would have put them over the top. Besides, they still were licensed in France, so they would have had to be tested anyway.

  2. I regret not having noted that French rider David Moncoutie, who rode his entire professional career with Cofidis, is widely believed to have never engaged in doping. His former teammate David Millar details the doping culture at Cofidis and he is quick to point out that he believed Moncoutie rode clean.

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